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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Jesus-Follower or "christian"? Part 3- Love is Hard

(This is Part 3, it will make a lot more sense if you have read parts 1 and 2 first!)

If Love is what it's all about, what is Love?

God is Love and the word "Love" is a lot like the word "God" in that it carries an emotional wallop but people use the word in so many different ways that it becomes almost impossible to know what they are really saying.

In our consumer culture we sentimentalize, compartmentalize, sanitize and minimalize “love” until all its power has been wrung out and what’s left is as vapid and insipid as the latest top 40 "love" song.

The Love we are speaking of isn't sentimentality or mere kindness or tolerance.  It isn't just doing good deeds yet it also isn't just about good intentions.  You can have good emotions, good intentions and/or good deeds without Love!  It obviously isn't about romance or sex per se, nor is it about a natural human affinity for those of our "tribe"- people we live with or have lots in common with or feel a special affinity towards for one reason or another.  Jesus taught his followers that “even the Gentiles love their own,” and that He was talking about something that went way beyond all that commonly passed for "love".

I mentioned that the early Jesus-Followers invented a new word (agape) to differentiate the Love they were talking about from the more commonly used terms then being used for "love" in all its various meanings.

What is agape?  

Agape is the Love with which God loved human beings when He sent His Son (John 3:16: "For God so Loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life").  

Agape is the Love that Jesus modeled and taught.  The best way to learn what agape really is is to study Jesus' life.  He incarnated (embodied) God's Love so we could SEE what He meant and He called on His followers to do the same so that the rest of the world could see what real Love is by observing us.

When we look at Jesus' life we learn that real Love is...
Unmerited, unconditional, unlimited.
Radical unselfishness.  
Compassion in action.
Costly:  It demands that we daily die to self, for Love is the opposite of selfishness.

Real Love is hard- regularly putting others needs above my own desires.

Real Love is hard- it does not exclude anyone just because they are different, messed up, dirty, unlovely, unworthy, immoral, antagonistic, unlikeable, irreligious, arrogant, depressed, ugly, stupid or off-putting in any other way.

Real love is hard- because it never takes a vacation.  If we rest or recreate, it is because we are finite and need to recharge our batteries so we can resume the demanding life of Love.

Real love, Jesus taught and modeled, extends even toward our enemies.

The opposite, or absence, of this Love is what the Bible calls "sin".  

Because we are born into a race marred by sin (selfishness), we are incapable of consistently exercising this type of Love on our own.  We need to have God's Spirit of Love indwelling and empowering us or we won't stand a chance and we'll soon get frustrated and give up on a life of Love in favor of something easier like a life of pleasure or achievement or religious performance.

But before we get into the specifics, we need to do a little theology.  Because unless and until we understand the two most unique doctrines in Christianity- the Trinity and Grace - we won't be able to fully understand, much less experience Agape Love.  Let's begin at the beginning: With the Triune God.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Jesus-Follower or "christian"? Part 2- The Heart of the Matter

(This is Part 2, if you just walked in you should click here and read Part 1 first)

So what is the Christian faith all about really?  What is the main focus?  What is at the very heart of the Bible's message?

How would you answer these questions?

What do most observers think the answer is, based on what they observe of our priorities in our churches and conversations?

When I visit a church to preach I often tell them I'm going to begin with a Bible quiz.  This tends to make about 3/4 or more of the congregation in these nice Bible-believing churches squirm because most of them don't really know very much of the Bible first hand.  But I start out easy and pretty soon they pick up on the theme.   Here's the quiz:

What do most people consider to be the greatest single verse in the Bible?  (John 3:16- "For God so loved the world that He gave...")

According to Jesus in Matthew 22:36-40, what is the greatest commandment? 
According to Galatians 5:22 what is the very first fruit of the spirit?
According to Romans 13:10 what fulfills the law? 
What did Paul tell Timothy (1 Tim 1:5) is to be the goal of all our instruction? 
According to Galatians 5:6, what is the only thing that ultimately matters?
According to 1John 4:8 what is God and what is the final proof that we genuinely know Him?
According to Jesus (John 13:35), how does the world know we are really His? 
According to 1 Corinthians 13, what is that without which all of our good works and even miracles and knowledge and faith are nothing?  What never fails?  

In each passage the focus is one and the same: Love.  You have to read the passages to get the full nuances (e.g. Gal 5:6 speaks of "faith working itself out through love") but there is no doubt that if God and Jesus wanted to communicate anything through the Scriptures it was that Love is what it's all about.  Miss this and you miss everything.  De-emphasize this and you pervert everything.

But getting it right isn't easy.  Once we've agreed in theory on the absolute priority of Love, we still have to figure out what that means and what it looks like in real life.  

The first believers, as they came to realize the radical nature of Love, and how different it was from what most people meant by the term, created their own word, Agape and infused it with meaning derived from Jesus' teachings and life.  Because today we are stuck with just one word, and that one word has become so infused with multiple and watered-down meanings ("I just LOVE bacon!"  "I love the Yankees!"  "I want to tell my fans, I love you all!") that it is hard to even understand, much less communicate what Love really is.

The Bible emphasizes that THIS love is the greatest power in the universe, able to overcome evil, satan, sin, death and ALL worldly powers. It is neither masculine nor feminine, it is not sentimental, it goes infinitely beyond "niceness" or "tolerance".  And in the end, when all that is not Love has been defeated, it will reign supreme above every other power.

It will take a while to explain but first of all: Are you with me so far?  If you don't agree that- according to God, Jesus and the Bible- Love is the center, the goal, the priority and the focus; then the rest of what I say won't be very relevant for you.  And if you do agree, you can, by reflecting on Jesus and His Word, figure out the rest of what I will say for yourself.  All I'm going to do is speed up the process a little.

But we do know this much already: If this is true, then every moment, day, week and season of life, every Christian should be focused on being a person who continually incarnates (embodies) the agape Love of God to a world of people that desperately need Love.  

And because this isn't easy to do - our materialistic society and our own selfish desires keep getting in the way and demonic powers seek to confuse us as to what Love really means and how it really acts - therefore Church is a place where we help each other learn how to practice Love and encourage each other to keep to the narrow path of Love.  Everything else we do is useful only as it feeds or manifests this Love, and is a hindrance if it interferes with Love, no matter how moral or religious or emotionally satisfying it might be.

So, what IS Love?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Jesus-Follower or "christian"? Part 1- Introduction

In this series I will be exploring what differentiates a "christian" in the cultural sense from a genuine Follower of Jesus.  I've already given away most of the answer:  A "christian" (from here on designated by the abbreviation "Xn") bases his understanding of what it means to be a Christian and live like a Christian from the Xn sub-culture in which he finds himself.  I will be primarily referring to the Evangelical sub-culture, although most of what I say would apply to Catholic or Mormon sub-cultures as well.  In the end, the main differences between Evangelical Xns and committed Catholics or Mormons revolve around doctrinal beliefs, their lifestyles and practices are generally very similar.

A Follower of Jesus bases his understanding of what it means to be a Christian and live like a Christian from the Bible.  He will analyze his dominant sub-culture to determine where it does and where it does not line up.  If it doesn't line up, he will follow Jesus (the Bible) even if it creates tensions between himself and his sub-culture.

If your only desire and interest are to fit in with the Xn sub-culture you belong to, nothing I will be saying will be of any real interest to you.  Conform to the moral standards, wear the right kind of clothes, get involved in some way with a church, learn the lingo, listen to the right kinds of music, adhere to the correct set of beliefs, buy into the herd's take concerning things like alcohol, entertainment, etc, and, by all means, vote Republican - and you're good to go.

Most of these standards are very good and will help you live a happier life and be a nicer person with a better than average chance of avoiding the traps that destroy the lives of many (addictions, financial loss, marital and relational disasters, etc).  Others serve primarily as cultural markers to show that you think and act in culturally acceptable ways and are thus a safe, and possibly even exemplary, person.   But this isn't what being a Jesus-Follower is really all about.  Still, it is all many Xns know.

Jesus came to make disciples and commissioned us to do the same.  A disciple is a follower.  To follow Jesus is to learn what He is all about, what He expects of us and how He wants us to live, and then bring our lives into conformity.  We learn these things from the Bible: primarily from the Gospels, as they record the very words of Jesus and describe how He lived, secondly from the rest of the New Testament, where we learn how the first generation of followers applied Jesus' teachings to their lives, and also from the Old Testament which Jesus came to fulfill.

We ask questions like: What is the main theme of the Bible as a whole?  What did Jesus see as His main purpose/ His mission in life?  (Some of His Work was unique: dying for our sins, etc; but much of it was meant to be an example for us to follow, in the power of the Holy Spirit).  What did He say about what it meant to truly follow Him?  What did He do that differentiated Him from other religious people of His day- members of the dominant Jewish Religious Sub-Culture?  And so on.

We will look at these questions in subsequent posts.  I will give these hints for now:  If you think that following Jesus is primarily about getting involved in a church and generally be more "religious", or trying to be a good moral person, or focusing on keeping your sin nature under control, or being nice to others, then you have missed the boat.  This is the religion of the Pharisees and other nice religious people throughout history and today.

Following Jesus is, from first to last, about learning to Love.  And the love He taught is so different from common understandings of love that He and His first followers had to invent a new word, agape, to distinguish it from what most people thought of when they thought of love.

So that is where we will begin next time.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Almost Perfect Church: Chapter 12- Every Ending Is A New Beginning

(Note: This is the last chapter of my story.  It won't make much sense unless you start at the beginning!  Click here for Chapter 1)

Today, my life would be the envy of many.  I'm pretty happy with it myself, about the only thing I would change would be to have more opportunities for teaching and preaching the Word (I have some, both in the church I attend and in other churches, but not as much as I'd like, at least not yet).

You've heard enough sad stories, here's a happy story about money.

Pastors are allowed to opt out of social security.  They and their churches are firmly told that if they do, be sure and put the money that would have gone into SS (both the employer's share and the employee's) into a retirement fund so you won't be bereft when that day arrives.  I opted out but in the 90s we were not getting anything put into our retirement fund, the money saved by the church by not paying into SS for us was being used to pay other bills instead.  This is when the stock market was soaring.  The elders (at the time) assured me that TA would take care of my wife and/or I when the time came and that was fine with me as I was young and didn't plan to retire from TA until I was very very old anyway.


Shortly before the market crashed (2000) and then hit the doldrums, both church and I did start paying into a 403b plan but, as you can imagine, when I found myself "retired" a couple decades earlier than I had planned, there wasn't much there.  Jeanie was a teacher, which meant she wouldn't get SS either, and she started late (in her 40s) so her retirement wouldn't be large, but if she stuck with it she would get enough to cover almost as much as she and I would have otherwise gotten in SS when that day came.

Losing my job (pastors don't get unemployment benefits) meant a 60% drop in income.  We always lived pretty simply but it was a tough adjustment and by the end of 2010 we had used up a lot of our savings trying to make ends meet.  We finally made the necessary adjustments to learn how to live happily on her salary but we still didn't have much put away for retirement.

As I prayed about employment, the Lord kept saying, "no".  Don't look for a job at a local church or at Simpson or back at Shasta College or teaching at Bethel's rapidly growing school.  Don't look for a job at all.  "I'll take care of your financial needs."

The thing about the stock market is, nobody wins.  The experts (mutual fund managers and hedge fund managers) don't do very well in the long run and individual investors do worse.  I studied as best I could, began managing and trading our small 403b (now IRA) holdings, and now, four years later, we've "suddenly" got enough money for retirement when Jeanie stops teaching in a few years.  Is it because I'm a genius?  Or lucky?  Or because the Lord guided my decisions so that I'd be free for whatever else He had for me?

What have I been doing?

Besides about 8 hours a week managing our retirement funds, family takes up a lot of time.  Our kids are spread out and between them and my dad I've put a lot of miles on the Element and quite a few in the air.  I cook our meals and grocery shop and sometimes even make the bed.  I raised chickens and ducks and geese when I was totally depressed and it got me through.  Friends call me and ask me to go on various adventures with them.  Whether it is three weeks camping canyoneering in Utah with a bunch of unchurched friends, or through-hiking the John Muir Trail with a Bethel pastor, if there isn't something on the calendar, the phone will probably ring soon.

The stories I could tell you!

I've done some writing.  These 12 chapters started out as a short letter of explanation to TA 3 years ago but it turned out to be 72 pages long (and counting).  As you can see, I edited out about 75% of that.  I'm writing about evangelism and the Christian life.  It's pretty much impossible to get anything published today unless you are famous so I've been trying to figure out the right venue.  I have some other ministry ideas closely associated with that book and I'm trying to get it to come together.  Meantime, I'll just put stuff up on this blog for now.

Naturally I've had lots of time for reading as well.  But I've always made lots of time for reading.

I've been running less, down from an average of 7 hours a week to about 4, though I'm trying to ramp it back up again this year.  Running is my doorway to a lot of amazing relationships... A LOT... of AMAZING... relationships.

I've been leading a home group and we've been doing a lot of mentoring, both formal and informal at the Stirring and occasionally (not often enough!) get called upon to do some teaching.

And I started a non-profit called Shasta Trail Runs.  I put on five trail races in the area.  We had about 500 people our first year with virtually no advertising and all the races are growing this year.  It's been a great ministry in many ways but it takes up a ton of my time.  I do enjoy STARTING things.  That has also lead to many fascinating and strategic open doors of ministry and relationship.

So I travel and minister and hang with family and friends and make money by "magic" with my computer (stock market) and cook and read and write and run and put on races and meet and make friends with lots of fascinating people and all the bills are paid with some left over.  I rarely set an alarm clock. I don't have to "earn" a living so I'm free to give away my time and energy for free.  And, unlike every senior pastor I know, I can't remember the last time anyone discouraged me by criticizing how I'm doing my "job".

So yes... You can stop feeling sorry for me now!

What do I want to see happen as a result of this story I've been telling?

I'd like to see some reconciliation take place.  Reconciliation is sort of a big thing to God.

Do I want an apology?  I'd like to know if they think they owe me an apology and if not, why not, and if so be specific.  Either way, my story has been told and I'm ready to move on.  I would like to hear their story though.

Do I want to see repentance?  I've already said a lot about what I think it means to be a genuine follower of Jesus and what that means for churches and church leaders.  I'll spell that out in a lot more detail in future blog entries and perhaps other venues, but what I say about that isn't for TA per se but for everyone who calls themselves a Christian and for every church.  I hope they'll have serious conversations about these matters and will search the Scriptures and bow to its Ways, rather than to the ways of American Church Tradition.

With regard to my influence on TA, I have shared some things I believe I will be rewarded for and others I messed up and sought forgiveness for, but from this point on my personal responsibility to TA is discharged and what happens, or doesn't happen, in the future will be the responsibility of others.

Meanwhile, do everything you can to support Pastor Dave's ministry.  He's a good man who's come into a tough situation.  Do everything you can to help him succeed at what he believes the Lord is leading him to do, and I would expect to see the Lord doing great things at TA once again.

If you call me or Jeanie and want to get together for coffee and conversation, that would make us happy.  At last we can be ourselves again!  We're looking forward to the the final third (God-willing) of our lives as the culmination of everything He has prepared us for up to now.

That's the end of my story about a church called Trinity, but I have lots more to say about the Church.  Check back in here at this blog now and then and you'll see that I'm still crazy after all these years.

The Almost Perfect Church: Chapter 11- Darkest Before the Dawn

This is a sad story but it has been four years and I am very happy with my life today. My depression is long gone, I see the Lord's hand in what has happened, and the future is full of opportunity.  Writing this has been hard though.  Only now have I felt strong enough and healthy enough to face down this unresolved mess once and for all but one does relive a lot of pain in the retelling.  I am glad, as I'm sure you are, that this is the last chapter before the dawn.

In the entire process none of the elders ever offered a word of explanation.  I don't think they really understood what was happening either.  I requested some sort of debriefing from them and they said we could do it in the fall. I reminded them in September and it was finally scheduled for November.

The two-year time period from September 2009 (the "this church will be dead in three months" board meeting) through the summer of 2011 is actually hard for me to remember.  Except where I wrote things down my depression was so great that I lived in a sort of fog.  I faked my way through the best I could.  It was actually worse after I left TA when the full reality of what had happened, and the irrevocable nature of it all, really hit me.

I felt at times as if God Himself had rejected me.  The elders all had, the CMA (via the District Office) seemed to have written me off completely.  It was as if "Ichabod: The Glory Has Departed" was written over my life.  Why was God even keeping me here on earth if He was done with me?  I was desperate for some affirmation but, apart from Jeanie, none was coming.

In November I asked the board why they had done what they did.  No one answered.  One new board member said that his understanding was that I had resigned and they just moved up the date.  I mentioned that I had repeatedly said that I wanted to stay and he said it was unfortunate nothing had been written down that could clarify the matter. I told him that I HAD written it out in my annual report.  No one had anything to say after that.

Did they just not want me at TA or did they think that I was no longer fit for ministry at all?  The wife of the same board member just mentioned had told me of another pastor in our district who had stepped down as senior pastor and his church paid him to be a minister at large, however he felt God led.  I mentioned my desire to do more in evangelism and asked if they would support me in that to any degree.  Or would they object if I started a new church in town (I knew I wasn't ready for that yet but it seemed like an obvious possibility in a year or so if the Lord should so lead)?

At their next meeting (December 2010), Jeanie asked (on her own initiative) if she could meet with them.  She did and poured out her heart and pain through her tears (I wasn't present).  She told me that she begged them to reconsider how they had been treating me.

They didn't respond to her either.  No one had any word or gesture of encouragement for either of us.

One last time I poured out my pain in an email and then rescinded my request for support.

The only response I got was from one board member who emailed me and met with me and told me that they felt that I was "arrogant" and was "demanding support without any accountability" (huh?) and was trying to "extort" money from them by "threatening" to start a new church if they didn't have any other options.  That wasn't the affirmation and encouragement I was looking for.

That was our last contact with the board.

The next (last) chapter will be brighter and happier.  It really was darkest before the dawn.  But this sad tale is worth telling and reading if it prevents other churches, other boards, other pastors, from going through similar circumstances.  Our nation is full of 60-something year old pastors, men gifted and trained and experienced and with long walks with the Lord, who are largely on the sidelines today because they've been through similar experiences. And I know men much younger who were pastors once and never want to do it again after the way their ministries ended.  My own pastor today seems to take a lot more flack than I ever did.  In several churches that I've been in as a lay person, someone has come up to me, in some cases board members, and tried to recruit me for the campaign to get rid of the senior pastor.  Usually these stories are never told and the lessons are never learned and before the sun sets and rises again tomorrow, it will be repeated somewhere else.

There are bad pastors out there.  We hear about them when they fail and fall.  But the ranks of former pastors are heavily populated with victims also, many of whom have been through much much worse than what I have told in this story.  Pastors are people too.  When we get treated like this, we hurt and we hurt deeply.  And the support that other hurting people find at in their church family in these times of suffering often isn't there for pastors when we have been sent away and (in most cases) are expected to keep all the details to ourselves.

All of us, when we suffer greatly, hope that somehow our suffering will be in someway redemptive for others.  I hope and pray that the pain of telling and reading this narrative will somehow be used of God to prevent at least a few of these all-too-common church tragedies from unfolding.

Finally!  Chapter The Last

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Almost Perfect Church: Chapter 10- Resigned to My Fate

It's hard to explain the depths of depression and emotional despair one reaches when almost everything he poured his life into for 20 years and his hopes and dreams for the next 20, along with friends, income, ministry, meaning and more are suddenly disappearing in a bizarre and unforeseeable manner.

At 3AM on another sleepless Sunday morning I came up with one last desperate "solution", one last grasp effort to be able to remain at TA and have some sort of meaningful ministry.  I went to church and at the end of the service, conducted on less than one hour's sleep, I extemporaneously announced that I was going to lead the church in the search for a new young lead pastor who could help the church effectively reach the next generation.  I would stay on, but only part time.  In my mind I would still do some preaching but mainly I would protect the new guy from the board.  And maybe if they saw that I was advocating for someone else to have that kind of freedom and authority to lead the congregation biblically, then they would realize the battle really wasn't about me.

I was, no doubt, vague and unclear.  I later explained it more clearly in my annual report in January but it was a hopeless and impossible plan.  A new guy with any sense wasn't going to walk into this situation and the board wasn't going to let me bring in someone new to do what they hadn't wanted to let me do.

It was unworkable and hopeless but it was the only straw I had left to grasp onto.  Like an army that has lost the decisive battle but somehow hangs on for a few more meaningless, but painful, skirmishes, I still stubbornly refused to surrender.

So we were totally shocked, though we should not have been, when Jeanie and I came back from a one-week vacation in February only to be told by the District Superintendent (none of the board members were present or ever offered a word of explanation) that my "resignation" had been accepted effective six weeks from now.

One reason I was shocked was that in the past the Board had always been very deliberate about making even small decisions, often asking for a month or more to pray and consider before voting, sometimes much longer.  But removing the founding pastor was decided in the same meeting it was first discussed.  No need to explore what had really gone on or to delay or pray or plan some pathway to reconciliation and healing.  The only thing the church needed now was for Mark to be gone.  He was the problem and removing him was the solution.  I had expected some sort of process.

I was too exhausted to fight or argue so I just played along.  I didn't have the energy needed to be a pastor in normal circumstances much less face a major battle with board and my assistant over the direction of the church.  I told people it was God's will (always a safe answer) and tried to be careful to give answers that were literally true even if they were deceptive by virtue of what was left unsaid.

The celebration and tribute on May 2, in which so many members spoke of the impact I had on their spiritual lives, was the highlight of my last 10 years.  But even that evening had it's depressing moments. Anytime some well-meaning friend came up to me and said, "At least it was a good ending," it was all I could do to hold it together.  My last two sermons, by the way, were both impassioned pleas to the leaders and church to re-focus on evangelism.

And then it was over.  Just like that.  But not quite.  There is still room for a happy ending.

Chapter 11

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Almost Perfect Church: Interlude

The story is almost over, the ending is predictable.  I will finish the tale for completeness but first a short interlude.

I have tried to be as honest as possible.  I have spent years reflecting on my own mistakes and have tried to own them publicly and openly.  I have not hesitated to state where I felt others fell short, we were deeply hurt (Jeanie tonight: "Do they know that this was the worst thing that ever happened to me in my entire life?") and I couldn't explain how or why we were hurt without being clear about what was said and done that hurt us.

This story is my perspective.  There are other perspectives, but I can only guess at them.  If there are other things I did wrong, I have yet to hear of them. If anyone else feels they did anything wrong, that it wasn't all my fault, I've never heard it.  I've apologized where I felt I did wrong, no one else ever has. Whether this means no one else feels they have anything to apologize for, I don't know.

The people who did this are all basically good people whom I have admired.  I DESIRED to have them on my board.  I enjoyed their friendship in the past.  I miss them.  I don't believe that any of them sought this outcome or wanted to force me out.  I have explained why their behavior left me feeling like staying was impossible, but I doubt if they saw this at the time.  I don't know how they didn't see it, but I think they got caught up in something none of us understood.

I have tried to explain how I've made sense of it.  I've gone back to underlying conflicts over the type of church we would be and how the pastor should function.  I honestly don't believe they ever really thought any of that through. They had an idea of what the church should be and do based on their experience of other churches and they wanted me to conform to it and when I resisted they probably thought I was being lazy or something and wanted to shock me into changing. If my guesses are wrong, I look forward to hearing the true story.

I had a vision of the church and my role based on my understanding of the New Testament and I wanted us to move in that direction but they didn't see it that way.  Even today if I spelled it all out they probably wouldn't agree that my vision is how churches should be or how Christians should live or how pastors should lead.  My missional conception of the Church and Christian life is pretty radical compared to how the majority of contemporary American church-goers think.  If I spelled it out in full, most people at TA (then or now) probably would feel relieved that I left.

I'll have more to say about that after my story is through.  What I have to share on these matters isn't specifically about TA but about all churches today.  "You may think that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."

Francis Chan left his church suddenly at about the same time I left TA.  He said, in one interview, that he had a picture in his mind, based on his study of the Bible, of what the church should do and be, and every year they kept trying new things to bring their church into line with that vision (pretty much the same as my vision) and it always felt like they were just tweaking around the edges but could never bring about the radical changes needed to fulfill the vision.

I wasn't willing to compromise my vision and the other leaders and probably most of the congregation weren't ready to follow it so my leaving was ultimately inevitable.  For that vision to happen at TA, I would have had to prayerfully figure out how to bring the leaders and congregation around to what I believe to be a New Testament perspective, a way of doing church different from what most of today's evangelical subculture is used to.  Because I didn't, and couldn't, do that, I ended up being a leader with no followers and suffered the fate such a person always finds.

In all I've written I've tried to make the point that neither I nor they had wrong motives and neither I nor they are without blame for how it ended.  I apologize to those who are angered by this conclusion for any anguish I have caused you. My criticisms of TA are not really so much criticisms of that specific church as they are of the state of the "Bible-believing" churches of America today in general.  Some of you sincerely believe that these problems can be fixed by a series of small, incremental changes.  What Chan calls "tweaking".  I hope you are right.  I just don't believe it anymore myself.

Chapter 10

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Almost Perfect Church: Chapter 9- From Bad to Worse

This is Chapter 9. You won't understand it if you haven't read the previous chapters, beginning here.

The lay elders pretty much avoided me during the next month, including Sunday mornings when I would see them huddled in corners whispering to one another.  Having said my piece in the letter I began the October meeting by giving each of them a chance to speak his mind.  Some were non-committal, others continued to place all the blame on me- whatever had gone wrong, it was all my fault.  One did concede that perhaps "the timing was bad".

I was told I should work 6o hours a week including five hours of home visitation.  I was told that if someone filled out one of our response forms I should call them, even if they only checked the box asking for prayer, not the one asking for me to call (I already put my email address and cell phone # in every week for anyone who wanted to contact me at any time).  I believed that sometimes people just wanted prayer, not a call but this was small potatoes anyway, it wasn't going to determine whether or not the church died in three (or was it now two?) months.

Another said that I should go to the men's retreat in November and stay through Sunday. When I told him that, prior to the date being set, my daughter had, as a birthday present to me, entered both myself and her in a marathon that weekend and had been training hard for months so we could do it together he just said, "It's a hard choice, I pray God will guide you." His implication was obvious, disappoint my daughter or defy the board.  Frankly, I didn't think it was a hard choice at all.

Finally Elder H spoke. He had asked to be last and went into a rage, resigned and stormed out of the room.  It was the most immature, unchristian behavior I have ever witnessed in a board meeting (as a pastor or as a lay elder myself).  I found out later that he had told the others what he was going to do.  No one said to him, "This is not how Christians handle things."  I believe they felt that this would possibly be the last straw that broke me for good.  Certainly now I  would see that I had no choice but to submit to their demands and control over every aspect of my ministry.

I told them what I've told you, that for the past 2-3 years I had been bringing my testimonies of evangelistic outreach and imploring them to bring theirs to the board meeting to set an example of the other elders and to Sunday mornings to set an example for the church and that I had sought numerous changes to make TA more outreach-oriented but they had resisted them all and that I believed that our real problem was that the church was too ingrown and now they were telling me to spend LESS time with unbelievers and more time "servicing" the consumers in the pews... they did not respond.

I "knew" that it was over, but I still refused to admit it.  How COULD God let it end this way?  Facing the loss of church, ministry, income, friends, everything I had worked toward for almost 20 years and almost everything that was important to me on earth.  I retreated within myself.  I didn't even tell Jeanie what was going on.  She wondered what was wrong with me.  I can't explain my actions during the next couple of months, I've never experienced such a breakdown before or since but I don't think many other people would have fared much better given the circumstances.

Short of resigning, what could I do?

If I took a sabbatical my assistant would be in charge and he didn't share my vision.  When I recovered emotionally the first thing I would have to do to move forward would be to remove him and that seemed like a chain of events that wouldn't work and would haunt me the whole time I was supposed to be recovering from the stress.  I talked to our District Superintendent who told Jeanie and I that he would talk to Pastor B himself about needing to resign if I wanted him to.  I sought to encourage B to leave voluntarily, promising a large severance (more than I ended up getting) but he became angry and soon I was being called before the elders to explain my actions.

Day by day depression, ennui, hopelessness increased and took over my life.  I didn't want to leave, yet the board had made it impossible for me to stay.  I couldn't sleep, especially before Sunday services when I would toss and turn until 4 or 5 and then go to church sleep-deprived, depressed and barely functioning.

They say they didn't force me out.


The Almost Perfect Church: Chapter 8- September Blow Up

I have much, much more to say about evangelism and outreach and the meaning of truly following Jesus and the mission of the church.  But I have already jumped ahead in time and to keep the narrative flowing I will move on to the big blow up of late 2009.  This is not as important as the previous topic so I'll try to keep it as short as I can without sacrificing clarity.

Every senior pastor lives in a bubble of pressure that few people can comprehend.  You are being pulled by hundreds of different, and often incompatible, voices in your own congregation.  You have both a board and a staff to deal with in various ways.  You feel constantly accountable to God, always comparing your church and ministry to the NT ideal.  You always feel like neither you nor your church are living up to your initial hopes and expectations.  You know that everyone judges your "success" by the number of people attending your church and are heartbroken to see church-goers rotating steadily through the churches in your town, always looking for something no pastor can give them, yet secretly relieved when some of them find your church and praise your ministry because there are always others who have just left, feeling dissatisfied again.  You hate this Church-Game and Church-Business but you don't know how to get out from under it.  You have crises of life and death and the various emotional traumas of life that people go through and bring to their pastor.  You have your perpetual critics who don't do much themselves but always want to let you know where they feel you fall short.  You have your own life to live with the same pressures and challenges that everyone else faces.

In May 2010 I went to my last district conference and was talking to two pastors, both about my age with about the same amount of time in their current churches.  I gave them the sanitized version and both stated emphatically how much they felt they needed long sabbaticals.  One of their wives was present and she agreed with tears in her eyes.  Yet they both viewed it as impossible.  Would they still have a job when it was over?  Would they still want to re-enter the pressure cooker when the sabbatical was over.  They loved being pastors but were worn down by the pressure.

I didn't realize how great the pressure was until after it was done.  We get used to the conditions we live in and God gives grace to bear up.  In addition to the normal pressures I had an assistant pastor who did not share my vision and approach and I struggled to find a way to use him effectively.  He obviously could not be in charge of evangelism, he hadn't done much with assimilation, he didn't want to do missions, he frequently avoided monthly prayer meetings and didn't want to be in charge of that ministry, he didn't want to lead a small group anymore much less be in charge of small groups.    So all of these things, which are usually responsibilities of an assistant, fell on me.  He was a good man in the wrong situation.  I had hired him and had tried to make it work long after I should have just faced the fact that it would not and dealt with it.  The fault was mine but so was the increased pressure.

In addition there was the simmering conflict with the board mentioned earlier and the realization that it would have to come to a head sooner or later.  One of the elders had also been holding meetings with the other lay elders, that I was not invited to, in which they discussed their ideas of what the church and pastors should be doing and how to get there.  They told me that it had been our District Superintendent's idea but when he found out he said, "No!" and they were finally halted but by that time the elder in question had developed the habit of referring to TA as a "board-led" church and every time I made a decision of any kind about the church without first getting their unanimous approval they would get upset.  I had no authority but anything that went wrong in the church was seen as my responsibility.

What was going visibly wrong in the spring of 2009 was that three families had left TA to go to another church in town, The Stirring.  The Stirring was already doing a lot of things I wished we would do (though not exactly the same way we would have) and was missional and focused on previously unchurched and disillusioned young adults.  Some of our teens started going to their evening service and in 2009 some of them were joined by their parents.  I found this stressful as I feared we would become a church of old people with a missing generation that had all gone over to more contemporary churches.  Elder D said that during the summer he wanted to interview the people who had left for the Stirring and report back what they said.  I was very happy about this as it offered hope for change.  I had talked to all three families, I knew why they had left and the reasons all pointed in the direction of change I wanted for TA.

In late July Jeanie and I went to Ohio to meet our new grandson, then I was immediately put on jury duty for two weeks when I got back, then I went on a long-planned one-week sabbatical.  During that time in Utah I spent several days witnessing to a young woman who had been my waitress in Park City and I literally sat on several mountain tops seeking the Lord about direction for TA.  After being away in one sense or another for about six weeks I felt disconnected and discouraged.  I did receive what I thought was the beginning of a plan to spend the next 20 months (until our 20th anniversary) reviewing with staff, board and congregation all that we did, all the Bible called us to do as a church and then re-starting on our 20th anniversary with an updated strategy based on our original vision and calling.  I shared this with our staff as soon as I got back and they were enthused.  Then I went to the board meeting and shared with them and was greeted by silence.

Elder D broke the silence by literally waving his finger at me and saying, "This church is going to be dead in three months..."  In a few moments Elder A spoke the exact same words.  2 or 3 more times during the meeting they each repeated the saying and each time they left the sentence unfinished (unless what?) but ominous.  The message was clear: the church was dying and it was my fault.

Elder D gave his report and none of it was about why the three families preferred The Stirring to TA. Instead he had apparently talked to anyone who had left TA in recent years or was still there but unhappy.  I was later told that he had said that his purpose was "to break Mark".  He later denied that he meant it "that way" but the fact is, he and the others broke me.  All the pressures came to a head that night and I broke down, emotionally wasted and virtually unable to function.  The next few months are a blur in my memory (except for the meetings which I kept notes of).  Apart from preparing sermons I mostly sat and stared.  If I didn't literally "curl up in a fetal position for six months" as one pastor told me was his reaction to a similar situation (LOTS of pastors, I've since learned, have been through similar or worse!), I did so metaphorically.

Instead of becoming more like the Stirring in a missional sense, the elders wanted to become less like it, more traditional, more focused inward.  They didn't want me to have either the authority or the kind of job description Pastor Nate add but something far different, something under their control and focused solely on the nice people in the church who pay all the bills.  The only thing that was really obvious was that they felt that the church was dying and it was all my fault and could only be fixed if I did exactly as they told me.  They wanted me to be less of a leader (since my leadership was heading in the opposite direction they wanted to go) and more of a Board employee.  They wanted me to do more home visitation (I already did more than any of the other 3 CMA senior pastors in town).  They wanted me to spend more time in the office (like the other 3 I spent as little time as possible in the church office, preferring to work in coffee shops and other places as much as possible where divine appointments could occur much more frequently).

They wanted me to spend Saturday mornings at the men's meeting at the church.  I would have liked to but it was the only morning that my wife and I could spend together each week (she is a teacher).  Saturday afternoons and evenings I was preparing for, and obsessed with, Sunday morning; Sunday afternoon and evening (if there were no church meetings) I was exhausted.

If I did all these things then maybe the church would not "die in three months".  I had no freedom to lead the church in the direction I always had felt God wanted it to go but it would be all on me when it failed.

As I said I was entirely demoralized, crushed and yes, broken.  I entered into a deep depression and emotional breakdown that I probably didn't fully come out of until this past year.  Pastor B was not present but the next day Pastor J sent me an email encouraging me and stating that he felt he thought this was a satanic attack on me.  That helped, a little.  But the reality that was staring me in the face though I didn't want to admit to it was that my ministry at TA was over.  I wasn't going to follow their agenda and they weren't going to do anything but fight mine.  I went into shock.

Like anyone who feels battered and depressed I cried out for empathy and understanding. I sent a long letter to the board five days later pouring out my heart and laying out my pain for all to see.  No one responded.

Chapter 9: They say they didn't force me out.

The Almost Perfect Church: Chapter 7c- Finding His Way

During this period (1997 – age 42) I took up running.  Though my primary goal was to gain and maintain a level of personal health and fitness that would enable me to handle the challenges of pastoring as I got older (my dad had his first of many heart attacks in his early 50s), after a few years I began to make more and more friends in the running community which opened up brand new opportunities for witnessing and ministry and even more so as I moved up to running ultramarathons (races longer than 26 miles) and discovered a passionate and tightly knit community of mostly unchurched individuals.  This frequent contact with the unchurched and their obvious need for Jesus and the healing and blessing he brings, renewed my commitment to personal evangelism and to the true mission of the church.

My own passion grew to a new level when, on a solo backpacking trip I had the most powerful encounter with God that I have ever had.  I was on the Tahoe Rim Trail and suddenly the Lord showed up.  I became very emotional and began crying uncontrollably.  Over the next couple of days on the trail the Lord revealed to me, to the degree I could physically bear it, how very very deep was His love for each and every person in the world.  I could not stop bawling but I also longed to get to the end of the trail in Tahoe City and see PEOPLE again.  With brand new eyes.  The people He placed in these visions were not the people at TA, nor any of my other Christian friends, but people of the world wandering around without Jesus and without hope yet loved by God more than any human parent ever loved his or her own children.  I kept crying uncontrollably at random intervals for the next two weeks and shared my experience with the church in my next sermon.  I've never been the same since.

In March of 2002 I was laying in bed, about to fall asleep, when suddenly I received a vision from the Lord for a series of TV commercials that would not talk about how great our church was or why people should attend TA (which is what most church advertising is about) but would instead present brief evangelistic and apologetic sermonettes directed at the lost and unchurched.  In the vision, each spot would begin with a place of beautiful or intriguing scenery, I would run into the scene and introduce myself (“Hi, I’m Mark Swanson from Trinity Alliance Church”) and then give a 45 second message designed to plant seeds in the minds and hearts of viewers.  Each spot would end with me saying, “Gotta run, hope to see you Sunday!”).  All of this came to me, ex nihilo, in a moment.

During the next 7 years over 100 episodes of “Gotta Run... Hope 2CU Sunday!” aired thousands of times on the local ABC and cable affiliates, bringing gospel messages to nearly everyone in Shasta and surrounding counties including thousands who would never visit a church, read Christian literature, listen to Christian radio or watch Christian TV.  Just today (May 21, 2014), over four years since they ran, a guy named Scott that I started a conversation with in Starbucks said, "Aren't you the pastor who used to be on TV all the time?"

Beginning around 2001 I annually encouraged the board to set aside the first 10% of our general fund for outreach (as opposed to devoting 100% for ministry to ourselves).  Every year it was a battle: I would argue that, as with personal tithing, God would honor and bless us for making His priority our priority; board members would counter that we couldn’t afford (which is to say, they didn’t believe that God would honor such a commitment but that our church's own internal needs would suffer from lack of funds if we made this commitment).  I usually prevailed, but only by agreeing (under protest) that this would be one of the first things cut if giving fell short.  One year I was asked to choose between getting a pay raise or continuing the evangelism funding. 

I would preach regularly on our need to share our faith, to develop intentional friendships (as I was doing) with non-believers.  I encouraged the congregation to develop a passion for Jesus' primary mission (seeking and saving the lost) and encouraged them to find their own ways of making connections to this end.  I developed and shared tools like "Q-TIP":

Q: Ask Questions (that's what Jesus did)
T: Share your Testimony
I: Invite them to church or small group or some other Christian event
P: Pray for them.

While I often experienced gratifying responses to my messages (I always tried to provide a practical "take-away" application), I discovered that my sermons about sharing our faith were generally ignored by most (except those who were already doing it).  I thought and prayed about why this might be and received a surprising (at the time) but obvious (in retrospect) answer.

Imagine that I appointed men to the board who were known to be engaged in adultery.  Then imagine that I preached sermons on a regular basis warning Christians not to engage in pre-marital or extra-marital sexual activity.  Would we be surprised if the congregation didn't take me seriously?

I believe that the parallel is obvious.  I endorsed men for the Board who did not manifest a passion for personal evangelism, either verbally or visibly and then I tried to convince the congregation that such a passion was mandatory for all believers and that the failure to do so was a grave sin of omission.  I guess I shouldn't have been surprised if most people didn't believe me.

I came to realize that most people didn't develop their ideas of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus by listening to sermons.  They developed their conception of what it meant to follow Jesus by the culture of the fellowship they were in.  That's what had happened to me in my early days as a believer when sharing our faith was immediately perceived as something all true believers do, as in fact one of the main differences between genuinely born-again believers and the kind of lukewarm church-goers I had observed as a child.  If the leadership of the church (pastors, elders and other leaders) doesn't manifest this on a regular basis, it will not be taken seriously.  This is especially true in any church that is small enough for everyone to know each other and observe one another on a regular basis.

Sure, they must have thought, Pastor Mark would share his faith and encourage others to do so.  That's what he was paid to do.  But, thought most, I didn't really expect them to take me seriously.  It's just one of those things pastors are expected to say.   In reality it is left up to a few who have a special gift or calling for it and is optional for everyone else.  At this point in our church history who could blame them for drawing this conclusion?

So my next step (beginning ca 2007) had to be to "convert" my elders so that they would become models to the rest of the congregation.  I continued sharing my own stories before the congregation on Sunday morning and at almost every board meeting.  I encouraged the elders every month to do the same.  I'd bring up our need to find ways to be more focused on Jesus' mission at board meetings.  None of the lay elders ever did: they did not bring up the topic at board meetings (though all had the opportunity to add any item to the agenda that they felt was important to the church), they did not share any testimonies of their own witnessing either on Sunday mornings or at board meetings or in the monthly appointments I had with elders individually.   (I do remember one exception by elder A who also participated in an outreach led by Derek to a local public school).

My own testimonies, generally of conversations with other runners, were met by silence.  Frequently elders would object to the amount of time I spent running and hanging out with other runners.  When things blew up later I mentioned to elder P that I had kept meticulous records and that my running over the years averaged out to 7 hours a week and that I didn't watch TV and no one would object if I did watch TV 7 hours a week he replied, "That would be OK because you wouldn't be passionate about it."  Elder P is a wonderful and gifted man, but if he ever shared his faith with anyone in the 15 or so years that I knew him, he never told me about it.  Instead the elders wanted me to spend less time with my unchurched runner friends and more time visiting and meeting with church members.  

Though I didn't admit it to myself at the time, I suppose I realized deep down that my tenure at TA was doomed when, in the October 2009 board meeting, elder D, speaking for the group, said that all I needed to do was increase my hours devoted to the church to 60 per week and add 5 hours per week to going around visiting members in their homes.  When I objected that none of the other CMA pastors in Redding were expected to put in that many hours, nor did any of them do that kind of visitation, and that 10 hours a day, 6 days a week would leave one day a week to do all the normal chores that life brings and no time to spend with unbelievers... I was met with total silence.  When I said that the pastor's job wasn't to meet the needs of every body in the church but to make sure those needs were being met by members ministering to one another, one elder responded, "It doesn't count if it isn't the senior pastor."  When I then said that if I left they would not make these kinds of demands from a new pastor  and that further no one would want to take the position under their terms (they had also stripped me of all authority to make any decisions without the approval of every board member), they again "answered me not a word".

One of my local runner friends that I had witnessed to called me one Sunday morning around 5AM to tell me he had just had a dream about Jesus and wanted to give Him his life.  He came to church that morning and came forward to do so (afterwards he and his wife attended a different church with some close friends).  Later I met a young woman at a race who had been heavily involved in alcohol, drugs and a lot more.  She initially wasn't interested in Jesus but the Lord gave me favor in her eyes and after several months of conversations she gave her life to the Lord and got involved in a church near where she lived (Sacramento).  Soon her two boys also gave their lives to the Lord and eventually even her parents did!  Three times in 2009 she came up to Redding with her boys to visit us, each time happened to coincide with a Sunday when we had a barbecue after church.  I had told the elders her story but each time she came they ignored her.  Not one reached out, not one tried to make her feel welcome even though,  with her background, she wondered if she would be accepted by other believers.

At the time I thought that the elders neglect of evangelism was like my own "neglect" of prayer.  I knew how important prayer was for believers and I knew I fell short but that didn't make it any easier.  I thought they knew how essential outreach was, both in their own individual lives and for the church, but just fell short.  In retrospect I think that I was mistaken.  I think they really did have a major blindspot here and that none of them really felt like they or the church were falling short.  They simply didn't get it.  I kept trying to get better, deeper, more consistent in prayer, reading every book on prayer I could (several each year) and constantly seeking to grow in prayer.  I don't think any of them took that same approach toward personal evangelism.  They were very focused on defense- making sure they and their children didn't fall into temptation, avoiding situations and people that might put them in danger and focusing their ministries on sin-management and encouraging one another to lead good moral lives.  

About 6 months before it all began to fall apart, I went home from a board meeting disheartened.  For two years I had wanted to lead the church back to our roots.  I knew that if I told the elders what that would entail they would object so at most board meetings I would give a watered-down version of what I really thought we should do and try to get that through.  And each time I would go home thinking, "If they shot that down, what would happen if I ever came to a board meeting and told them what I REALLY thought we needed to do!"  After this particular meeting, when it again was apparent that they wanted me to just care for the flock, to be more of a shepherd (regardless of whether the sheep wanted to follow Jesus in His mission of reaching the world or not) and less of an army general or missional discipler, I thought to myself, "It would be the easiest gig in the world just to do what they want.  I love preaching and I love the people of our church and would be happy just to hang with them and tell them nice words and bask in their gratitude.  The pay is good, the life is good... but God has called me to follow Jesus and to lead others to do the same and if I give in He will remove His Spirit from my ministry.  Somewhere down the line this is going to come to a head and it's going to be messy and painful but I have no choice and He will be with me."  I thought the conflict to come might lead to several elders leaving, I never suspected that it would result in my being out, removed from the church and my friends and from employment!

A couple years later, at the church I now attend, Pastor Nate said in a sermon (paraphrase): "Lots of people think that if you follow Jesus life will get easier.  But there will be one or more times in your life when choosing to follow Jesus may cost you everything you hold dear."  That morning I heard the Lord speak to me through those words and reassure me that my suffering was pleasing to Him and would not be in vain.

A year after that I was at that same church one Sunday morning.  We went to that church because there were a lot of teachable and reachable young people there.  There was also one old man, the pastor's grandfather, Paul Edwardson, himself an evangelist and former pastor who had been mightily blessed of God in his ministry.  Whenever he saw me at church he would come over to talk to me.  I had tended to sort of brush him off.  I was there to meet young people!  One day I became deeply convicted that he deserved better and felt a heavy burden to make sure I sought him out the next Sunday and gave him my full attention.  Maybe the Lord would give me something to say to him that would bless him.  He certainly deserved no less.  

I went to church and looked around and spotted him sitting across the room.  I kept looking over there, both to make sure he didn't leave early and because I sensed the Lord had something special planned.  On the way over to him at the end of the service a dear old friend I hadn't seen in 20 years came up to me.  I quickly disengaged from him and headed straight toward the old yet mighty man of God.  I said hi and he, as he so often did, launched into a story.  He told me how he had been called to a church in Vancouver, BC that had dismissed its pastor for being too outreach-oriented.  It was messy and he wondered why they wanted him when he was known to be an evangelist but he prayed and accepted the call.  It wasn't a good match!  After three frustrating years he left and he told them in parting, "I'm an evangelist, not a babysitter!"   Immediately I realized that the Lord had so strongly impressed me to talk to him, not so I could bless him, but because the Lord wanted to bless and affirm me through him.  It was another major moment in my healing.  The Lord's hand was all the more evident when four days later Paul was in an auto accident that took his life.  No wonder the Lord was so insistent that I talk to him that Sunday!

Chapter 8: The Blow Up

The Almost Perfect Church: Chapter 7b- Losing My Focus

At TA we began by inviting people we knew, occasionally targeting “cutting-edge” ads at the unchurched, and praying.  I regularly offered training in personal evangelism, mentioned it frequently in sermons and announcements and occasionally offered services directed at the lost (such as our annual Church In The Park event).  We put together and Outreach/Assimilation Team that met each week to call people on the phone, visit them in their homes and reach out in any way we could.  When the church grew I turned this ministry over to Pastor B who soon disbanded it.  I forget what reason he gave but he seemed to me (and others on the team) to not really have his heart in it.  

Over the next 15 years I kept urging him to come up with a replacement and he kept reporting that he was "working on it."  I later asked him to get involved with the Missions Team on a rotational basis with myself and Pastor T and he soon begged out of that also saying that it wasn't his "thing".  When a leader hires a person and puts him in charge of ministries that that person doesn't have a passion for, it is mostly the leader's fault.  I compounded my failure by turning over the new member's classes to him.  Since he didn't share my passion for emphasizing the need to reach the lost, those who went through the class, including future elders and leaders, didn't see it as central to our lives or to the ministry of the church the way I did and the way we originally emphasized.  Our church became gradually less missional and more ingrown.

Meanwhile, Pastor T regularly took the youth on witnessing excursions and encouraged them to bring their unsaved friends (no matter how “messed up”) to youth group, often in spite of the “concerns” of parents such as elder P, and I always backed him up and encouraged him (not that he needed it) not to be dissuaded. 

Now here is an uncomfortable (for me) truth.  At some point, perhaps about 5-7 years into our ministry at TA, I too lost much of my focus.  Past years tend to blur together and it is hard to remember exactly how or when, but for a period of 3-5 years I got so focused on the church (which had grown fairly rapidly) and the new challenges of a pastoring what was now a multi-staff church of 250 (which is totally different from solo-pastoring a congregation of 120) that I began unconsciously neglecting providing leadership and focus on the central task of reaching the lost.  

We didn’t drop it entirely, not by any means, and Pastor T continued to provide excellent leadership in this area (which, in retrospect, probably subconsciously lead to me feeling I could focus elsewhere), but the truth which I failed to fully appreciate is that most Christians do not view Church or life missionally and biblically but culturally (based on their personal history and experience of church) and that in order to keep a missional church missional, and in order to avoid letting it slide into something more docile and culturally acceptable, a lead pastor MUST constantly keep the vision alive through sustained and tireless effort.

Nevertheless, throughout this time, Pastor T and I would frequently share on Sunday mornings about our own personal witnessing experiences and encourage others to do so during our regular Sunday morning testimony times.  There were many in the congregation who were passionate about reaching the unchurched (Derek, David, Joan P, Kelly, Nikki Jo, Rachel and many others) and I always sought to give them opportunities to share their passion and encourage the others.  And I continued to occasionally teach classes and small groups on sharing our faith and I was always actively studying and seeking out what other churches were doing that was finding success (though the answer too often was, "not much". It was hard to find good replicable models that did not rely on the senior pastor's charisma and evangelistic giftedness, traits that I, like most pastors, did not possess).

While I continued to find opportunities to witness to some of my students in my accounting classes at Shasta College (which was, at that time, my only regular sustained exposure to the unchurched) and to non-believers who found their way to TA, I did not see, at the time, that I was not providing enough modeling or pulpit leadership and that our church was gradually, almost imperceptibly, like the iconic frog in the kettle, sliding into missional mediocrity.

Meanwhile, God had a surprising plan to bring me out of my fog and back to His Mission.  

Unfortunately, this is where things start to get really messy.

Chapter 7c- Finding His Way

The Almost Perfect Church: Chapter 7a- The Crux

Well... now we come to the crux of the matter.  If people wonder what I'm really up to, this is it.  The leaders that I conflicted with, I conflicted with because we did not see eye-to-eye in this matter.  It was all of them vs me so naturally they were convinced that they were right and I was wrong.  I believe that my position is biblically unassailable so naturally I am convinced that I am right and they were (and are) wrong. (As Luther said when his biblical view of salvation was uniformly opposed by the Church of his day: "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me.")  I believe their opposition was due to blindspots on their part so they may even say that this isn't and wasn't the issue.  I need to prove that it really is the issue so this will take awhile.  My prayer is that all who read this will be moved to a genuine commitment (in some cases requiring repentance) to the Mission that Jesus committed His life to and called His followers to emulate and created His Church to fulfill.

Personal Background:
I already shared some crucial aspects of my background in Chapter 3.  Later I was a missions major in seminary desiring to serve the Kingdom in a place that had not had as much exposure to the Gospel as North America. I wanted to be where the action is! When the Lord closed that door, it did not mean that I was to be less committed to the Great Commission but that I would be seeking to do my part to fulfill it in some other capacity.  I do not see this as a personal calling but a universal calling on all disciples of Jesus.  I am passionate about it not because I have some sort of natural predilection in this direction, rather my passion is a spiritual infection picked up and inflamed through my immersion in Scripture and time spent with Jesus seeking to know His heart.  Part of discipleship is training our hearts to beat with the heartbeat of Jesus and the heartbeat of Jesus is, always has been, and always will be for the salvation of the lost.  If you don’t have, or aren’t developing this passion, you are not a person who shares the heart of Jesus.  If you do have this passion, it will show.

Just say, "No" to the Hokey-Pokey:
The main story of the Bible, its central theme, is about mankind’s sinful rebellion against an absolutely holy, perfect and good Creator and Lord, and of His grace-full and mercy-full mission to save us from ourselves, from Sin, and from the devil, and restore us to perfect fellowship with Himself through Jesus Christ.  Everything else in the Bible, and in life, is secondary.  This, rather than the hokey-pokey, is what it is all about.  Miss this and you’ve missed everything.  Miss the full and radical implications of this for the church and you end up with an amnesiac pseudo-church that has forgotten why it even exists.

However big, exciting, popular, enjoyable or full of good deeds and ministries your church may be, if this is not the central passion of your church, and especially of its leaders, then your church is just a social club, a support group for aging evangelicals, a counterfeit which Satan is more than content to tolerate.  Jesus promised that the very gates of hell would not prevail against His true Church.  Gates are defensive, the Church is to be on the offense, storming Satan's territory and setting people free from his grasp.  When a church focuses mainly on defense (protecting ourselves agains the influences of the world and "sin-management"), then Satan has already won.  His gates have nothing to fear from a church that is focusing almost exclusively on shoring up its own fences and walls.

Therefore it was always central to the mission and purpose of TA that we as a church be fully committed to this.  This is so heavily emphasized in the Bible that all Christians and all churches pay it lip service.  But in reality, most churches and most Christians do not make it central the way Jesus and his original disciples did.  For us to be true to Jesus and the Bible in this area, we would have to be a church that was different from most churches and we would have to be constantly re-training the believers in our midst to not settle for a cultural Christianity that marginalized outreach but to strive to share the passion of Jesus for the liberation of the lost.  Those who share that passion live lives whose daily choices, actions, habits and patterns are dictated by that passion.  If they are leaders in the church, this is their main concern and focus.

When we began TA I insisted repeatedly (as most church planters do) that we were planting a church to reach the lost and prodigal, not merely as a place to recycle church-hoppers.  It was never our goal to simply become a support group for aging evangelicals or a pit stop for church-hoppers who had grown discontented (again!) with their previous church or pastor.

If a church doesn’t exist, primarily and passionately, to reach the lost, then…  (you should be able to finish this sentence for yourself by now!).  If you are an elder and it is not your passion to help your church become truly missional, then you should resign.  Orthodoxy without orthopraxy is still heresy- a departure from the true faith.  (The nice thing about being “liberated” from the pastorate is that now I can say these things bluntly rather than always trying to find ways to say them without making people mad at me!).

To be continued, but in the meantime, if some would protest that the leaders agree with all I've said: My position is- Every genuine follower of Christ passionately desires to share the very heartbeat, the deepest passions, the primary mission of Him who came "to seek and save the lost" and who repeatedly (at least 5 times) emphasized in His last appearances on earth that His mission and passion were now to be the mission and passion of His followers and of His Church.  I cannot dictate to anyone else what this passion will look like in their life but I can say this: If you share this passion IT WILL SHOW!  It will show in your conversations, in your lifestyle, in your daily choices and, if you are a leader, in your leadership.   It showed in His life and, if it is authentic, it will show in ours.  Anyone who lacks this passion should seek it until they find it.  Anyone who still lacks this passion should be disqualified from leadership in the church.  How can you lead what you don't live?  If the current and former lay leaders agree with me, they won't have to say so, you will see it in their lives and hear it in their words and prayers (including at church board meetings!).  It will look different in each of them than it looks in me, but if it doesn't show it doesn't really exist.  (You might remember that I earlier said that when you find out more about my position some of you might be glad I'm no longer pastor.  Now maybe you are starting to comprehend what I meant... and I'm just getting started!).

If others will protest that I wasn't as consistent and passionate in leadership in this area as I should have been... I agree.  But I came to my senses and repented and you can too!

Next chapter.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Almost Perfect Church: Chapter 6- Almost

(This is chapter 6. The story begins here in chapter 1)

Mid-Course Evaluation

As I wrote earlier, I believe that the primary reason for TA’s success was our whole-hearted commitment to letting this be God’s church under His rule and not my church or our church.  Specifically by constantly seeking to be a Theo-centric church, existing for His glory, committed to His stated priorities, dedicated to the activities and calling that He set forth for us in His Word.  Where I faithfully held forth this vision and approach and fought to call us back to it when we strayed, I was used of God to bless the church.  And later, when I got distracted or diverted and failed to do so, the church as a whole paid the price for my failure.   

When I had time to reflect I would go through the mental checklist:

Worship: Many churches seemed to equate “worship” with singing some “worship songs”.  With maybe a prayer and a brief word of exhortation.  And of course an offering and lots of announcements.  The end.  We always sought to go way beyond that and because of Pastor T’s leadership we almost always did.  

Edification:  The sermons were meaty and full of biblical content, delivered passionately and relevantly with a focus on practical application.  Our small groups supplemented this with face-to-face discussion, prayer, encouragement and accountability.  I would have liked to add a lay leadership training course but could never figure out how to fit it into my schedule or anyone else’s.

Fellowship:  I constantly obsessed on this.  While I was regularly attacked and criticized for not being enough of a warm-fuzzy-encouraging-people-person-type (I’m a Scandinavian introvert by nature), I’ve always had a very highly idealistic view of what Koinonea should look like -  a view that goes not only way beyond what other churches practice, but way beyond what other churches aim for.  While there was no way I could be everyone’s confidante, I was always trying to make sure that everyone at TA who was open to genuine fellowship or in need of prayer could readily find it.

Visitors and regulars alike seemed to be constantly surprised that even if the pastor wasn’t the cuddliest teddy bear on the block, the church he planted and lead was one of the warmest and friendliest and most welcoming they had ever experienced.  I did everything I could to create and maintain that environment and, in fact, was constantly frustrated that we never achieved the idealistic level I sought.  Whether or not, or to what degree, my efforts and prayers were responsible for those positive outcomes is not for me to judge and I’ve even had people say out loud to me that they wondered how TA was such a warm church in spite of such a reserved pastor.  At any rate, His grace was sufficient.

Prayer:  Prayer is another area where I always felt that we fell woefully short of the ideal, especially in light of the prayer emphases in places like Korea and China or at the Brooklyn Tabernacle (Jim Cymbala).  In actuality, we probably did better than most churches (though “most churches” was never an acceptable standard for me).  I considered scheduling weekly prayer meetings (talk about endangered species!) but after discussing with our church planting team we decided to have prayer meetings once a month and aim for 100% attendance.  We started out fairly close to that, but as the church grew, the prayer meeting always seemed to stay about the same size (generally around 20). I preached about the absolutely necessity of prayer frequently and encouraged people to launch prayer efforts wherever, whenever and however.  Eventually we had prayer meetings before first service as well as prayer times at the end of each service plus the weekly prayer times at small groups.  As good and important as these all were, they had a tendency to pray exclusively for those physically present.  At the monthly meetings I always encouraged intercessory prayers with a wider horizon- for all the ministries and workers at TA, for the Church in Shasta County in all its various manifestations, for missions and missionaries, for the lost and for those in authority.  I encouraged people to gather not only for defensive prayers (meeting personal needs) but to pray offensively against satanic powers and strongholds and for the growth and prosperity of God’s Kingdom on earth.  This used to be standard in churches, but it is rare today.

I wasn’t convinced that the majority of people at TA ever really owned the idea of corporate prayer like this on a regular basis, but our monthly gathering, which I always worked hard to make as dynamic and focused as possible, was, at the very least, a thrust in the right direction.  What do you say about a prayer ministry that is “not enough” but “better than most”?  To the degree we were faithful in prayer, to that degree we were blessed.  Lots of blessings came our way, but not near as many as God wanted to give us.  We had because we asked and we had not because we asked not.

Click here for the next chapter where we begin to get to the crux of the matter.

The Almost Perfect Church: Chapter 5- Almost Perfect?

(This is chapter 5. Chapter 1 begins at this link)

Highlights of our “Golden” Years

I understand that some of you may be tempted to skip this section and jump ahead to the “juicy” stuff that came much later.  That’s OK (not that I could stop you anyway!) but if you do I hope you come back and read this section later.  You can’t really understand the end of the story if you skip the middle.  This section provides essential context for all that followed.

We began TA with about 40-50 people (including children).  For the first 18 months we were subsidized by our district and mother church (about $3K/month if I remember correctly).  Like all church planting teams we had high expectations of growth but after 15 months, as the summer of ’92 approached, we were running 60-70 per Sunday and we knew that we would be losing our subsidies in September. Without that money we could not afford to rent the school where we met or pay my salary.

With our very survival in question, the summer of ’92 should have been a time of great anxiety for me but it wasn’t. As I walked out each morning to the “600 acre woods” by my house and sat in the shade and met with God, I KNEW that God was with us and that all would be well.  It wasn’t personal confidence or optimism.  I had PERFECT peace, a gift from God that kept me on course.

That September our attendance suddenly doubled to 125 or so and the increased income completely covered the loss of subsidies!  In the following years we grew to 180, 240, and eventually a high of around 330 per week.

Key Leaders

During our growth years, God proceeded to bless us by bringing key people with key gifts to help us become the church He wanted us to be.  I cannot take time here to acknowledge all of them but I want to mention just a few.  I played a role, the role that God gave me, but others played equally essential roles as God called and gifted them.

Pastor T brought amazing gifts to his roles as our worship leader and youth pastor.  No one has ever done as good a job at consistently leading me into authentic worship Sunday after Sunday as he did.  He was truly anointed for the task.

And a generation of young people, including my own three daughters, are eternally indebted to him for his decade of discipleship of our youth group.  In addition, his commitment to outreach helped us to keep that core part of our mission alive and vibrant.  As will be seen, when he left we lost something crucial in the area of evangelism which my own subsequent efforts were never able to fully compensate for. 

And the friendship that Jeanie and I had, and continue to have, with the T’s and their family, has continued to be a source of joy and encouragement and spiritual stimulation.

Pastor T and I, like any two headstrong, passionate leaders, did not always see eye-to-eye on all issues but on the really important stuff we were of one mind.

Pastor B joined us during our first big growth spurt. It was a season when I was desperately in need of someone dependable to take over all of the logistical details of running a church so that I could be free to preach, pastor and lead.  Pastor B was well-gifted for that role and my own ministry was greatly enhanced by no longer having to tend to all of these details. 

And his wife brought a spirit of kindness, compassion and helpfulness which then spread from her to become part of the culture of TA.

“Time would fail me” if I attempted to mention all the others who super-generously poured their lives, hearts, spirits, time and resources into building this church but they are all worthy of far more public thanks and praise then I gave them.  We sought to honor them/you all in various ways but never as much as we should have. I regret that.

I must however briefly mention my wife, Jeanie, who, besides all the roles she served in the church itself (especially in children’s ministry) was always the behind-the-scenes rock who enabled, through great personal sacrifice, her husband to dedicate so much of his finite time and emotional energy to his service of TA.  My pattern was to work six days a week at TA and on the seventh day I collapsed.  That means that almost all of those honey-do’s and home projects and chores that other men do on Saturdays fell mostly on my wife, in addition to raising three daughters, returning to college and eventually taking a full-time teaching job to help pay for our kids own college and meet our other financial needs.

In addition, throughout most of the 90s, before she went to work, I had to supplement our income to make ends meet by teaching one or two classes per semester at Shasta and/or Simpson Colleges.  That meant that I was usually working seven days a week, putting even more of a burden on her. She also helped keep our income equal to our modest expenses by doing office cleaning.  The sacrifices she has made, lovingly and (mostly) joyfully, for TA, are beyond measure.  All who have been blessed by TA through the years have been blessed by her- whether they knew it or not!

What God Wrought

But how were we really doing?  In God’s eyes?  According to the vision and standards He had given us in His Word?  I confess that as Senior Pastor I tended to look at the church the way a doctor looks at a patient – a quick passing glance at all the healthy parts of the body and  a concentrated worried focus on any unhealthy parts.  But at the same time I knew, during our best years, that TA had largely become the church I had dreamed of years ago, a church I would have been happy to enthusiastically attend and support even if I wasn’t the pastor.

I remember once a group of about 12 young people from YWAM called and asked if they could spend a Saturday night in our building as they passed through town. They had been on the road for a long time, visiting and ministering in churches along the way and they stayed for our Sunday morning service before hitting the road.

After the service the leaders of the group approached me, barely able to contain themselves.  “How do you do it?” they implored.  I didn’t know what they meant.  “We’ve been to dozens of churches and something amazing is happening here that we long for but almost never see.  How do you do it?”

I didn’t think that this Sunday was really much different than any other and I don’t remember how I answered but I remember how the question really opened my eyes afresh to the beautiful things that God was doing in our midst.

Many others gave similar testimonies and we knew it ourselves: God was doing a wonderful work in our midst during this era.